Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner on Lessons From 'Sean Saves the World' and the Sudden TV Remake Surge
As Hazy Mills hits its 10-year anniversary, the duo — friends since college — reflect on their diverse stable of hits, the occasional miss and why they're ready to go to space (well, sort of)
This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner formed Hazy Mills a decade ago, they were in markedly different places in their respective entertainment careers. Emmy-winning actor Hayes, now 44, was co-starring on NBC's long-running comedy Will & Grace, while Milliner, now 45, was teaching at Chicago's sketch comedy theater Second City. Today, their company -- its name was inspired by combining their last names and the old mills that dotted their home state of Illinois -- has built an impressively diverse roster of programming that includes NBC's hit horror-crime drama Grimm; TV Land's recently syndicated sitcom Hot in Cleveland; NBC's competition show Hollywood Game Night (for which host Jane Lynch recently scored an Emmy) and NBC's upcoming live comedy Hospitality, about life inside a Manhattan hotel.
"We definitely both 'visualized' success," says Milliner on a sunny October morning at Hazy Mills' new offices on the Universal lot. "But there were a lot of valleys in between where it was hard to really see the success because this a business that punches you in the balls." Hayes, who juggles acting on the CBS comedy The Millers with producing, says passion has been a key component to their surviving television's most volatile decade in recent memory. "We don't stop until we get what we want -- in the most respectful way," says Hayes.
Here, the friends and producing partners reveal why comedy always matters (even in drama), what they learned from the failure of Sean Saves the World and what genres they want to tackle next.
How has your working relationship evolved over the years?
TODD MILLINER When I met Sean, I was loaning him my Blockbuster card, and now I give him the password to my Netflix account.
SEAN HAYES Ten years ago, we didn't know the ropes of the business. We were equal that way. (To Milliner.) You were learning the business, I was learning how to work together.
Milliner Our relationship's weathered everything.
What's the biggest thing you've learned from each other?
HAYES I've learned a lot of patience. I've learned approach -- it's not what you say, it's how you say it. I have a more abrasive approach sometimes.
MILLINER I learned to act more quickly. What makes our business successful is the combination of the conflicting styles we have, where he wants to act and I want to slow down. Now I'll take more risk and he'll [take the time to] measure whatever that [project] might produce a little more seriously.
The projects that you back are measured by your passion for them. Have you refined that approach?
HAYES Everything we do has to have some comedy in it. Even Grimm (which returned Oct. 24), where in the most horrific moment, there will be a funny line from [actor] Silas [Weir Mitchell].
MILLINER We started by having a simple mission statement: only producing what we would want to watch. We were lucky that we had a confluence of things, where doors weren't shut to us; we sold Grimm, Hot in Cleveland and Hollywood Game Night around the same time. Now the thing that people want to paint us into is a "celebrity monster comedy that has gay overtones." (Laughter.)
HAYES No one can do it alone! Todd runs the company, and we have many employees. It's a machine we built with love and care.
MILLINER It helps when you love what you're doing. Persistence
and passion -- that's a great tagline for someone's company.
What's the farthest you've gone to get a project on the air?
HAYES It was a one-hour drama series based on the life of Billy Joel. I said, "Let's call him. If he says no, then he says no." He said yes, we sold the project to Showtime and it ended up being a pilot. The next thing you know, we're in New York eating with Billy Joel. You don't know a result until you actually go out and seek it. I don't mind noes, they just point me in a different direction.
MILLINER I hate noes. That said, it does make me work harder to get a yes. Grimm took the most persistence and fortitude to get a pilot made. It was cut [at CBS] during the [2007-08] writers' strike. We sold it to NBC probably three times. We felt like Grimm -- it was put on a Friday against Game 7 of the World Series -- was an afterthought. We worked so hard to get it on the air: What do we have to do to get a break? Then it did great [in the ratings].
MILLINER We learned a lot from that. We learned that [creator] Victor Fresco is a great writer and that launching a comedy now is hard anywhere. We learned that Linda Lavin, Tom Lennon and Megan Hilty -- and all the actors -- were wonderful to work with. And you can never plan for a hit. Who knows? If it was launched 10 years ago or 10 years from now, would everything have aligned differently? It didn't align this time. If everybody knew what made a hit, I'm sure it would be a hit. Thursdays are hard for everybody -- except Hollywood Game Night, weirdly. It's the alternative to everything.
Is there a show from the company's portfolio that holds special meaning?
MILLINER I feel particularly tied to Hot in Cleveland because it really did put us on the map as a company. Those four ladies [Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick] are so special, and [creator] Suzanne Martin is our work wife. I missed my first Hot in Cleveland tape night out of 109 shows a couple weeks ago for a family vacation.
Do you have a plan for the next decade?
MILLINER We started this company when Obama wasn't president. We talk a lot about the future and a lot about new, interesting partnerships and developing stuff that's not just for traditional television.
HAYES A friend of mine said a while ago: "The business is constantly changing and you must change with it."
Premium cable is a space you're hoping to branch into. Are there other areas you're eyeing for expansion?
MILLINER Space is a genre we love, and even though we are in sci-fi with Grimm, space is its own thing. We're infatuated with it, from a Guardians of the Galaxy level to Ancient Aliens.
HAYES We have something in development in that area now. There hasn't been a game-changing space/sci-fi show since Star Trek on network television.
MILLINER I'm a big fan of Airplane! -- very pun-heavy, broad comedy. I don't know if people's appetites warrant it, but it seems like that's been missing: Naked Gun, Airplane!, Top Secret! Or some kind of twisty-turny spy, heist drama like Three Days of the Condor, The Sting or Heist.
Are you still working on a concept for a Broadway show?
HAYES We have one that's almost ready to talk about.
MILLINER Our live, half-hour NBC show coming up, Hospitality, will also feature live commercials. That's our bridge into theater. Then, hopefully we'll have a show in New York.
Any nerves about doing a live show?
HAYES It is ambitious, that's why you do it.
MILLINER Eventually, you just have to say "f-- the nerves" because anything exciting will make you nervous. If you can get your butterflies to fly in a pattern, then you're OK.
There is a surge in reviving old properties. Is there a classic TV title you'd want to bring back?
MILLINER If it made sense. If I said, "No way, don't ever do a remake," then there wouldn't have been great new versions of The Fugitive. Or 21 Jump Street. We wouldn't be opposed to it. In some ways, Grimm is a remake -- it just happens to be from public domain.
If someone told you they wanted to bring back Will & Grace, would you consider it?
HAYES Sure, let's do it!
MILLINER Sometimes I think these things happen a little too early.
HAYES That's the example of me being instinctual and him being methodic.
MILLINER I think we're just going to relaunch NBC's The Blacklist -- while it's still on the air. We'll just change the color in the title.
Hazy Mills By the Numbers
82: Percentage growth for NBC's heavily time-shifted horror drama on Friday nights, Grimm, in 18-to-49 in season three.
2006: The year Hayes and Milliner first pitched their idea for a live comedy series, which will finally come to fruition early next year in NBC's Hospitality.
2015: When Grimm begins airing on TNT in an exclusive off-network syndication deal.
2: The number of retro arcade games Hayes and Milliner have stationed by their desks. They include a combo Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga machine and Asteroids.
5.9 million: Hot in Cleveland's total viewership for the June 16, 2010, premiere, TV Land's highest-rated telecast.
100-plus: Number of celebrity guest stars on Hot in Cleveland over six seasons, including Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper, George Hamilton, Carol Burnett and Carl Reiner.
210: Number of territories in which Hot in Cleveland is licensed, including Australia, Ireland, Croatia and South Africa.